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Send in the Clowns Print
Shambhala Sun | January 2002


Send in the Clowns


“Payasos!” a young boy yells down the valley. The hills, so dense with madrone and manzanita they seem canopied in green, echo back. Payasos!-Clowns!

The white pickup truck sways and rolls dangerously down the narrow, muddy embankment to the valley below. The mud is deep and slippery, the road little more than a ledge along the precipitous slope. Moshe Cohen, head clown, is driving as slowly as he can. In back, Bernie the Boobysattva puts on his red nose and looks over the edge at the chasm below, then at the children congregating excitedly on the other side of the road, waving and yelling down to the others that the clowns are here.

We’re in Yibelho, our second to last stop on the payasos’ trip sponsored by the international organization Payasos Sin Fronteras, or Clowns Without Borders. We landed in San Cristóbal de las Casas, two hours south of Yibelho, six days ago. Yibelho is the payasos’ fifth show, with another one scheduled that the afternoon in the town of Acteal, just above Yibelho. Three years ago a right-wing paramilitary unit entered Acteal, home to a displaced community of Abejas, pacifist Mexican Indians who refuse to take sides in the conflict between the Mexican government and the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation). They entered the church and killed 45 Abejas praying inside. The massacre took several hours. The army, based just outside Acteal, did nothing.

Now we pass that army base and wave to the soldiers. They don’t smile or wave back. Not so the young boys of Yibelho, who gaily pick up the payasos’ heavy valises when the truck finally stops midway down the hill (it can’t go down any further!) and haul them down to the town, two boys to a valise. Wearing mud-stained pants and little else this cold morning, they look no older than 7 or 8 as they run barefoot in the mud.

Yibelho too is a displaced community of Mexican Indians who arrived in this valley just five months ago, exiled from the land they’ve owned for centuries by paramilitary groups who killed some and terrorized all. So far all the Indians have managed to put up are huts made of boards crisscrossed haphazardly under corrugated roofs, with lots of space for cooking smoke to go out and for the wind and rain to come in. In other more prosperous communities, families have one hut for cooking and another for sleeping, but not here. In fact most of the shelters are actually tents made of plastic sheets under corrugated roofs. Unlike other communities, too, there’s no basketball court to serve as a kind of village plaza, just an expanse of dry mud at the bottom of the hill enclosing a gigantic puddle.

Bernie looks down and says to the others, “I guess this is where we do the show, right?”

“Right,” says Moshe.

They have no place to change. Bryan Welch, aka Smedley-O, a San Francisco clown, is dressing right in front of eight gawking young boys: long black pants and jacket, a red bow tie, and a grey fedora under a black top hat. Moshe Cohen, or Mr. YooWho, is already dressed and is coming carefully down the slope trying not to slip in the mud, but you know he will from the unlucky look on his face. He’s wearing a madras hat, plaid women’s slacks that go down only as far as his shins, and a plaid jacket with two drooping flowers in his lapel. He’s the epitome of someone dressed to kill but getting the colors and size all wrong. He has the best schlemiel expression on his face that I’ve ever seen and a matching laugh: heh heh. He’s also the coordinator of all activities of Clowns Without Borders in the United States and has appeared in Chiapas at least a dozen times.

And then there’s Bernie, aka Roshi Bernie Glassman, a well-known American Zen teacher. He’s wearing a Hawaiian shirt and jeans held up by black suspenders with red hearts, and a white cone-shaped hat that Moshe brought him from Kosovo.

Bernie started his clown apprenticeship under Moshe Cohen several years ago after an introduction by his friend, Wavy Gravy, but didn’t really take up the practice of clowning till 1999, when he hit upon his persona, Bernie the Boobysattva. He took several trainings with Moshe and the two began to co-lead workshops in America and Europe entitled Clowning Your Zen.

Chiapas is a different kind of apprenticeship for the Boobysattva. Here he’s the schlepper, carrying the valises and sets for his teacher and Bryan, the two professional clowns, in return for performing during parts of their show and receiving their critical feedback. Right now he’s busy blowing bubbles which the young boys are batting with tall sticks up in the air.

“Como està?” I’m asked. I look down at a boy about seven, barefoot. He tells me that his name is José Luis. His baggy yellow shorts, splattered with mud stains, come down over his knees under a dirty red and white shirt emblazoned with the initials NBA, as big as a tunic. He wears a colorful striped rebozo holding his younger sister and will carry her for as long as I see him at Yibelho. That doesn’t stop him from happily carrying boards up the slope to create makeshift seating with the rest of the boys. As usual, the girls, wearing white blouses with pink and green stripes, sit apart from the boys. The older women wear white and red embroidered shawls. One dark brown man wearing a large sombrero is perched on a small wooden chair smack in the middle of where the payasos will perform, and he moves only reluctantly.

Out they come, first Bryan daintily carrying one small red-lacquered box, followed by Moshe struggling with two big old valises and the phonograph, instantly walking into a tree. Everyone laughs. Moshe stumbles around for about ten minutes, getting more and more lost before he finally finds Smedley-O, and then the two take turns pushing each other off the erect suitcase on which they’re attempting to both sit. The Indians nod laughingly at this familiar script. There’s the boss and there’s the worker. The boss carries one small red box and wonders why the worker, struggling with everything else, doesn’t arrive sooner. The boss has a newspaper to read, the worker doesn’t and tries to read over his shoulder. At some point Smedley-O even puts a kerchief on YooWho’s head and on its surface pours himself a leisurely glass of champagne.

YooWho finally rebels and the two push each other around. Smedley-O falls over, his feet wiggling up in the air, and Moshe covers his crotch with the folded newspaper. Everyone laughs. But Bryan gets the bigger laugh when he knocks off Moshe’s hat, revealing his balding pate. The place explodes. The Indians, with their long black hair, find baldness very funny. The kids whoop out loud, the girls and women giggling behind their hands.

The two continue to play tricks on one another--stealing hats, hitting each other with the rolled newspaper, taking turns falling on the ground-all to old jazz music from the 1920’s and ‘30’s, mostly Duke Ellington. Their routine is about people and emotions: power, authority, trickery, befuddlement, anger and revenge. Best of all, there’s a chase. The audience loves it.

Bryan begins his pantomime, and that’s Bernie’s cue. Sitting anonymously in the crowd, he gets up, takes out a red balloon, blows it up, then lets the air out in sporadic farting sounds. The audience laughs, forgetting about the two payasos in the center. Moshe glares angrily, Bryan makes a fist, the two stomp angrily over to Bernie and Moshe grabs his balloon away from him. Bernie sits down, chastened, but not for long. As soon as they resume their performance he gets up once again, this time creating an even greater disturbance with the aid of noisemakers and balloons. Once again the two payasos take away his balloon, and once again Bernie tells them he’ll be a good boy and sits down, only to jump up again as soon as they’re not watching.

The two payasos finally give up and pull the Boobysattva by his suspenders into the center of the circle, where all three get out their balloons. Bernie starts blowing his red one and the other two blow theirs. But as hard as they try, they can’t get any air into theirs. Their balloons remain wimpy and small while Bernie’s red balloon gets bigger and bigger as he blows harder and harder. The two payasos glare angrily at Boobysattva, who is immensely proud of himself. He blows harder and harder, everybody laughs in anticipation, and the balloon busts with a big bang right in his face. He screams in fright and throws up his arms, and the two payasos start chasing him up and down the muddy slope. The children are doubling up with laughter, pointing at each other gleefully as the clowns knock their noisemakers on their little heads as they run past.

Finally they capture the Boobysattva and haul him back to the center of the circle by his black and red heart suspenders. He’s reluctant, pulling back, his mouth a big O, and Moshe gets him all entangled in his suspenders. Finally, with a big show of courtesy, they invite him to sit down in a special chair. He sits and the chair collapses on the ground, causing him to fall with his buttocks up in the air. The audience roars. The Boobysattva walks sadly away, and for the moment at least, the show goes on without him.

The first time Bernie fell with the collapsing chair he fell hard, hurting himself. He’s had to learn how to fall (on the other cheek, so to speak), not just to avoid getting badly bruised but also to get his buttocks high up, thus getting more laughs.

For the six days of the payasos tour, he’s practiced falling. The white pick-up truck has delivered the payasos to one community after another, sometimes at the end of remote, unpaved, bumpy country roads, often in the company of a dozen Indians seeking a lift to the village. They sit on the rim of the back of the truck, laughing and joking in their native tongue of Tzotzil while holding on for dear life. Their dusky brown faces are deeply lined and tired, but I’m struck by their high spirits, their humor and dignity. “Who are you?” someone asks us in Spanish. “Payasos sin fronteras,” Moshe explains. “What does sin fronteras mean?” the first man asks. “Todo el mundo,” a fellow Indian replies. Everyone.

On our earlier trips we’re joined by Zapatista coordinatores who have arranged for the payasos show as part of their own program, where they visit and educate Indian communities about the effects of the immense Puebla-Panama free-trade zone that has already been signed and agreed to, stretching from Mexico down to Panama.

“The indigenéos live in collectives,” one of the coordinatores, a woman in her mid-twenties, tells me during the long bumpy ride to a remote village called Huixtan. “All the land is owned by the collective-it’s been this way for years-and then divided up by families and given to each family to plant. Mexico’s constitution has always protected the rights of collectives, but it’s now being changed because they say that it does not comply with NAFTA.“

NAFTA, the North America Free Trade Agreement, took effect in Mexico in 1994. It helped trigger the Zapatista revolution, though the uprising had been planned and organized for 10 years beforehand. The coordinatore talks about the displacement of entire communities that have been terrorized by paramilitary groups into leaving the land they have owned collectively for centuries.

At Huixtan we are invited after the show for a lunch of freshly-baked tortillas, beans, cactus and avocado, accompanied by sweetened corn syrup and water. In Chaolin we spend the night in bunk beds in a school dormitory where the children sleep two to a bed to make room for us. At 4:30 in the morning I go out and see the open door of the cooking house with the fire going in the hearth and the women beginning to make tortillas. I go back to bed and wake up to see a dozen children around my bed, waiting patiently for me to get up. Everything fascinates them: how we fold away our sleeping bags, how we comb our hair, how I write my notes, our clothes, my pocketbook. At some point one girl stares fixedly at my arm, then stretches out her own reddish-brown arm next to my white one. The others exclaim.

Chiapas is being watched all over the world to see how the rights of indigenous people will be protected in the middle of the new Puebla-Panama free-trade zone. Will the Mayan Indians abandon their self-sustaining native crops in favor of export crops whose prices will be determined by the erratic ups and downs of a world market? Will they choose to work for 30 pesos a day in factories that take the place of hillside farms and remote collectives? The clown teacher and the dharma teacher talk this over in the white pick-up truck as they drive to yet another community.

“About 70% of the population of the highlands of Chiapas are Indians who still live in communities where people hold on to traditional customs and relationships, a mixture of Catholic and Indian festivities and certain healing traditions,” Moshe says. “They may be poor by our standards. Many don’t have electricity or even running water, but they’ve been mostly self-sufficient for generations. The challenge is how they can hold on to these values and way of life in the face of all the pressures caused by globalization.”

“For me it always comes back to the One Body,” Bernie says. “We think of the One Body as One, but it’s also a million different things, each of which is the One Body. It’s important to realize Oneness. It’s also important to honor each individual part of the One Body as the One Body. When we say that we’re global, when we say that we’re all One, do we also recognize the differences? Do we also allow for needs of different cultures, traditions, countries? Some people don’t see the One Body and just honor one part, the part they’re comfortable with. Other people want to honor the One Body at the expense of its parts. The challenge is to honor each part as the One Body and not to exclude anything.”

Moshe YooWho Cohen squints pragmatically at the road ahead. He has been coming to Chiapas for a long time and has friendships all over the place: with villagers, human rights activists, Zapatistas. For him clowning is not just a profession, it’s a practice. He’ll tell you that discovering one’s own clown world causes a shift in perspective. You may be a business person, a housewife, a teacher or a farmer, but when you enter your clown world you see things differently. And when you clown with other people, you help them see things differently. He’s the head clown teacher at Wavy Gravy’s Camp Winnarainbow north of San Francisco and has performed before refugees not just in Chiapas but also in Kosovo and Nepal. He travels all the time, and he worries that so many of us in the West have no idea where our food, our clothes, our cars, or our computers come from, how they’re made, and at what price.

He comes to Chiapas to make children laugh, to cause women to giggle behind their hands, and to bring smiles to young-old weatherbeaten, wrinkled faces. In short, to awaken everyone around him. And he’s bringing more clowns to join him in this work, like Smedley-O and the Boobysattva.

Yibelho is by far the poorest of the communities we visit, for the people have only been there for five months and the despair of displacement is still etched powerfully on their tired faces. To make matters worse, it’s raining, creating mud and mud-stained clothing. In most of the other communities the payasos visited the ground was swept, clothes were clean, hair neat, and the Indians wore colorful sandals rather than walking barefoot. There is more wretchedness at Yibelho, but this seems to cause the payasos to work even harder, to coax more laughter out of José Luis and his young friends. So they do sleight of hand with red foam balls that disappear and reappear, that replicate into smaller balls or else increase in size inside the tightly-gripped palm of a young, nervous volunteer. Moshe picks up his ukelele and croons a Linda Ronstadt song to the nearest old Indian woman, whose face disappears in wrinkles of smiles.

But the finale is the best. YooWho and Smedley-O are juggling white pins, throwing several back and forth at the same time, when Bernie the Boobysattva shows up out of nowhere, a big Churchill cigar in his mouth, and starts walking between them nonchalantly. The white pins are thrown all around him. I recall Moshe’s words to Bernie from the morning: “You need not just more expressions on your face but also more gradations in the expression. So when you walk between us as we juggle you start off being arrogant and completely sure of yourself, and then in the middle I want you to get scared. But not immediately; play with it. First you start getting nervous, then really nervous, then you’re actually scared. That contrast between how you start off all sure of yourself and the final panic when you find yourself in the middle of all this-that’s what’s funny!”

So now Boobysattva saunters between the pins like it’s a sunny day in Santa Barbara, not a care in the world, the big cigar perched complacently in his mouth. He crosses between the two payasos again and again, and then, suddenly, he’s in trouble. His eyes veer from side to side, then stare fixedly ahead. He’s afraid to move. The cigar trembles in his mouth, he turns white, and now he begins to quake with fright. The children and the adults are laughing louder, some slapping their sides. He shakes even worse, the cigar going up and down convulsively, and now he’s truly frightened. The payasos throw the pins in the air all around him, catching and throwing, trying to get one closer and closer to his cigar. They’re trying to strike the cigar from his mouth but they can’t get close enough, only it doesn’t matter because the audience is laughing harder and harder. And just when Boobysattva is so convulsed with fear and panic that we’re sure he’ll make a run for it and get hit by the white juggling pins, one pin hits the cigar cleanly and it jumps out of his mouth. The place collapses in laughter. No applause, just laughter that rolls on and on at arrogance brought low. José Luis jumps up and down with his baby sister in his rebozo while his friends rush down the slope to get closer to the payasos.

“Payasos sin fronteres!” Moshe bellows out from their muddy stage in the gray drizzle: “Smedley-O!” Bryan in his undertaker’s suit takes a bow. “Boobysattva!” Bernie has recovered his Churchill cigar and pantomimes flicking off the ashes while he waves broadly. And “Yoooo-Whoooo!”

We walk up the hill to the truck. Ahead of us is still Acteal this afternoon, the final performance of the trip. But we sense that it’ll be hard to beat the show at Yibelho. The boys are once again carrying the payasos’ heavy luggage. We pull off in the white pick-up and some start running after us, barefoot in the deep, oozing mud, yelling: “Payasos! Payasos!” The truck at first climbs slowly and they can easily keep pace. But then it reaches level ground and starts speeding off and the boys stop with a final wave, except for one who runs and runs. He’s 12 or 13, and his black hair blows in the wind as his eyes focus hard on the axle of the white truck, trying to stay with it. We’re so startled at how fast he’s running that we forget to wave or shout goodbye. Moshe hits the accelerator and after a few minutes we leave him behind, but the young racer won’t give up. Even when we reach the highway and turn right towards Acteal, a last glimpse reveals he’s still running.

Eve Marko is a founding teacher of the Zen Peacemaker Order and Executive Director of the Peacemaker Community Foundation.

Send in the Clowns, Eve Marko, Shambhala Sun, January 2002.


Counsels from My Heart Print

Counsels from My Heart


Two teachings by Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche from his book Counsels From My Heart on meditation and on accumulating merit.

Heart Jewel of the Fortunate: An Introduction to Dzogchen, the Great Perfection

    Homage to my teacher!
    The Great Master of Oddiyana once said:
    Don't investigate the roots of things,
    Investigate the root of Mind!
    Once the Mind's root has been found,
    You'll know one thing yet all is thereby freed.
    But if the root of Mind you fail to find,
    You will know everything but nothing understand.

When you start to meditate on your mind, sit up with your body straight, allowing your breath to come and go naturally, and with eyes neither closed nor wide open, gaze into the space in front of you. Think to yourself that for the sake of all beings who have been your mothers, you will watch Awareness, the face of Samantabhadra. Pray strongly to your root teacher inseparable from Padmasambhava, the Guru from Oddiyana, and then mingle your mind with his and settle in a balanced meditative state.

Once you are settled, however, you will not stay long in this empty, clear state of awareness. Your mind will start to move and become agitated. It will fidget and run here, there and everywhere, like a monkey. What you are experiencing at this point is not the nature of the mind, but only thoughts. If you stick with them and follow them, you will find yourself recalling all sorts of things, thinking about all sorts of needs, planning all sorts of activities. It is precisely this kind of mental activity that in the past has hurled you into the dark ocean of samsara. And there's no doubt that it will do the same in the future. It would be so much better if you could cut through the ever-spreading, black delusion of your thoughts!

Now, supposing you are able to break out of your chains of thoughts, what is awareness like? It is empty, limpid, stunning, light, free, joyful! It is not something bounded or demarcated by its own set of attributes. There is nothing in the whole of samsara and nirvana that it does not embrace. From time without beginning, it is inborn within us; we have never been without it, and yet it is wholly outside the range of action, effort and imagination.

But what, you will ask, is it like to recognize awareness, the face of rigpa [wisdom]? Well, although you experience it, you simply can't describe it—it would be like a dumb man trying to describe his dreams! It is impossible to distinguish between yourself resting in awareness and the awareness that you are experiencing. When you rest quite naturally, nakedly, in the boundless state of awareness, all those speedy, pestering thoughts, that would not stay quiet even for an instant—all those memories, all those plans that cause you so much trouble—lose their power. They disappear in the spacious, cloudless sky of awareness. They shatter, collapse, vanish. All their strength is lost in awareness.

You actually have this awareness within you. It is the clear, naked wisdom of dharmakaya. But who can introduce you to it? On what should you take your stand? What should you be certain of? To begin with, it is your teacher who shows you the state of your awareness. And when you recognize it for yourself, it is then that you are introduced to your own nature. Then, with the understanding that all the appearances of both samsara and nirvana are but the display of your own awareness, take your stand upon awareness alone. Just like the waves that rise up out of the sea and sink back into it, all thoughts that appear sink back into awareness. Be certain of their dissolution, and as a result you will find yourself in a state utterly devoid of both meditator and something meditated—completely beyond the meditating mind.

"Oh, in that case," you might think, "there's no need for meditation." Well, I can assure you that there certainly is a need! The mere recognition of awareness will not liberate you. Throughout your lives from beginningless time, you have been enveloped in false beliefs and deluded habits. From then until now you have spent every moment of your lives as the miserable, pathetic slave of your thoughts! And when you die, it's not at all certain where you will go. You will follow your karma, and you will have to suffer. That's the reason why you must meditate, continuously preserving the state of awareness that you have been introduced to. The omniscient Longchenpa has said: "You may recognize your own nature, but if you do not meditate and get used to it, you will be like a baby left on a battlefield: you'll be carried off by the enemy, your own thoughts!" In general terms, meditation means becoming familiar with the state of resting in the primordial, uncontrived nature, through being spontaneously, naturally, constantly mindful. It means getting used to leaving the state of awareness alone, divested of all distraction and clinging.

Now, how are we to get used to remaining in the nature of the mind? When thoughts come while you are meditating, let them come; there's no need to regard them as your enemies. When they arise, relax in their arising. On the other hand, if they don't arise, don't be nervously wondering whether they will. Just rest in their absence. If, during your meditation, big, well-defined thoughts suddenly appear, it is easy to recognize them. But when slight, subtle movements occur, it is hard to realize that they are there until much later. This is what we call namtok wogyu, the undercurrent of mental wandering. This is the thief of your meditation, so it is important for you to keep a close watch. If you can be constantly mindful, both in meditation and afterwards, when you are eating, sleeping, walking or sitting, then that's it; you've got it right!

The Great Master Guru Rinpoche has said:

    A hundred things may be explained, a thousand told,
    But one thing only should you grasp.
    Know one thing and everything is freed—
    Remain within your inner nature. Be aware!

It is also said that if you do not meditate, you will not gain certainty; if you do, you will. But what sort of certainty? If you meditate with a strong, joyful endeavor, signs will appear that show that you have got used to staying in your nature. That fierce, tight clinging that you have to phenomena, experienced dualistically, will gradually loosen up, and your obsession with happiness and suffering, hopes and fears, etc., will slowly weaken. Your devotion to the teacher and your sincere trust in his instructions will grow. After a time, your tense, dualistic attitudes will evaporate and you will get to the point where gold and pebbles, food and filth, gods and demons, virtue and non-virtue are all the same for you—you'll be at a loss to choose between paradise and hell! But in the meantime, until you reach that point (while you are still caught in the experiences of dualistic perception), virtue and non-virtue, buddhafields and hells, happiness and pain, actions and their results—all this is reality for you. As the Great Guru has said, "My view is higher than the sky, but my attention to actions and their results is finer than flour."

So it won't do to go around saying you're a Dzogchen meditator when all you are is a belching, farting lout!

It is essential for you to have a stable foundation of pure devotion and samaya, together with a strong, joyful endeavor that is well balanced, neither too tense nor too loose. If you are able to meditate, completely turning aside from the activities and concerns of this life, it is certain that you will gain the extraordinary qualities of the profound path of Dzogchen. Why wait for future lives? You can capture the primordial citadel right now, in the present.

This advice is the very blood of my heart. Hold it close and never let it go!

Magical Nectar: Advice for a Disciple

    Gracious Lord of all the Buddha Families,
    The nature and embodiment of every refuge,
    To you, the Lotus-Born, my jeweled crown, I bow in homage!

If I were to instruct others in the excellent way, who on earth would listen? For I am wholly without discrimination and cannot be a guide even for myself! Still, you see me with pure vision and you did ask. So rather than being a disappointment, I will say a few things as they come to mind.

All success, great and small, whether in spiritual or temporal affairs, derives from your stock of merit. So never neglect even the slightest positive deed. Just do it. In the same way, don't dismiss your little faults as unimportant; just restrain yourself! Make an effort to accumulate merit: make offerings and give in charity. Strive with a good heart to do everything that benefits others. Follow in the footsteps of the wise and examine finely everything you do. Do not be the slave of unexamined fashions. Be sparing with your words. Be thoughtful rather, and examine situations carefully. For the roots of discrimination must be nourished: the desire to do all that should be done and to abandon all that should be abandoned.

Do not criticize the wise or be sarcastic about them. Rid yourself completely of every feeling of jealous rivalry. Do not despise the ignorant, turning away from them with haughty arrogance. Give up your pride. Give up your self-importance. All this is essential. Understand that you owe your life to the kindness of your parents. Therefore do not grieve them but fulfill their wishes. Show courtesy and consideration to all who depend on you. Instill in them a sense of goodness and instruct them in the practice of virtue and the avoidance of evil. Be patient with their little shortcomings and restrain your bad temper, remembering that it only takes the tiniest thing to ruin a good situation.

Do not consort with narrow-minded people, nor place your trust in new and untried companions. Make friends with honest people who are intelligent and prudent and have a sense of propriety and courtesy. Don't keep company with bad people, who care nothing about karma, who lie and cheat and steal. Distance yourself, but do it skillfully. Do not rely on people who say sweet things to your face and do the reverse behind your back.

As for yourself, be constant amid the ebb and flow of happiness and suffering. Be friendly and even with others. Unguarded, intemperate chatter will put you in their power; excessive silence may leave them unclear as to what you mean. So keep a middle course: don't swagger with self-confidence, but don't be a doormat either. Don't run after gossip without examining the truth of it. People who know how to keep their mouths shut are rare. So don't chatter about your wishes and intentions; keep them to yourself. And whether you are speaking to an enemy, an acquaintance or a friend, never break a confidence.

Be welcoming with people, and smile and talk pleasantly. And keep to your position. Be respectful towards your superiors, even when things do not go well for them. Don't scorn them. At the same time, don't bow and scrape before the vulgar, even when they are proud and full of themselves.

Be skillful in not making promises that you know you cannot keep. By the same token, honor the promises you have made, and never dismiss them as unimportant. Do not be depressed by misfortune and the failure to get what you want. Instead be careful to see where your real profit and loss lie.

All such worldly conduct, adopted with proper discrimination, will result in this life's fortune and prosperity and, so it is said, a speedy passage to the divine realms.

If, however, you want to get out of samsara completely, here is some advice that should help you on your way to liberation.

If you have no contentment, you are poor no matter how much money you have. So decide that you have enough, and rid yourself of yearning and attachment. It's a rare person indeed who knows that wealth is passing and unstable and who can therefore practice perfect generosity. For even those who do practice it, generosity is often soiled by the three impurities and is wasted, like good food mixed with poison.

Apart from the beings agonizing in hell, there is no one in samsara who does not cherish life. Now, of the seven excellencies of the higher realms, longevity is a karmic effect similar to its cause. Therefore, if you want to live long protect the lives of others; concentrate on doing this!

Cultivate faith and devotion to the Three Jewels and to your teacher! Strive in the ten virtues and combine clear intelligence with extensive learning. And nurture a sense of personal integrity and propriety with regard to others. With these seven sublime riches you will always be happy!

To gain peace and happiness for oneself is the hinayana approach of the Shravakas and Pratyekabuddhas. The altruism of bodhichitta is the path of beings of great potential. Therefore train yourself in the deeds of bodhisattvas, and do this on a grand scale! Shoulder the responsibility of freeing all beings from samsara. Of all the eighty-four thousand sections of the Buddha's teachings, there is nothing more profound than bodhichitta. Therefore make every effort on the path, uniting absolute and relative bodhichitta, which distills the essence of all the sutras and the tantras. The subduing of one's own mind is the root of dharma. When the mind is controlled, defilements naturally subside.

Do not allow yourself to become impervious and blasé with regard to the dharma; do not lead yourself astray. Let the profound dharma sink into your mind. Now that you have obtained this excellent life, so hard to find, now that you have the freedom to practice the teachings, don't waste your time. Strive to accomplish the supreme, unchanging goal. For life is passing, and there is no certainty about the time of death. Even if you are to die tomorrow, you should have confidence and be without regret.

Therefore, cultivate a real devotion for your root teacher, and love your vajra kindred, cultivating pure perception in their regard. Fortunate are those disciples who at all times keep their samaya and vows as dearly as their lives. They gain accomplishment quickly.

Ignorance, the five poisons, doubt and dualistic clinging are the roots of samsara, and the sufferings of the three realms. To this there is one antidote that removes or "liberates" everything in a single stroke. It is spontaneous wisdom, the primal wisdom of awareness. Be confident, therefore, in the generation stage: appearances, sounds and thoughts are but the primordial display of deity, mantra and primal wisdom. Then settle in the "subsequent" (anuyoga) path of the three specific perceptions, the perfection stage, the state of bliss and emptiness.

Take your stand on the ultimate practice of the Heart Essence—samsara and nirvana are the display of awareness. Without distraction, without meditation, in a state of natural relaxation, constantly remain in the pure, all-penetrating nakedness of ultimate reality.

Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987) was supreme head of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism. Charged by His Holiness the Dalai Lama in 1959 with leading the Nyingma sect in exile and ensuring the preservation of its ancient tradition, he was a Dzogchen teacher to many important lamas, including the Dalai Lama himself, and played a major role in the transmission of vajrayana Buddhism to the West. Few of his teachings have until now been available in English, so we are honored to present these two talks by Dudjom Rinpoche from Counsels from My Heart, available from Shambhala Publications. From Counsels from My Heart, by Dudjom Rinpoche, © 2001.

Counsels from My Heart, Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche, Shambhala Sun, January 2002.

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Of War and Hope Print

Of War and Hope


How do we maintain our faith in human nature when violence is loosed and innocents die? Robin Kornman points us to three 20th-century thinkers who looked into the abyss and yet asserted the transcendent goodness and meaning of life.

I’m writing this in the Asian Reading Room at the Library of Congress. Around me, here in one of the world’s great repositories of knowledge, the library staff are rushing in their quiet way to list which of their treasures are irreplaceable. They must remove these to a bomb-proof shelter. These days, even the most cloistered scholar must look war and political evil in the eye.

A problem that has been abstract for this generation, but terribly real in the last century, is now sadly real again. Americans are face to face with the problem of human nature and evil. The evil seems to wear two masks: it has appeared in the external form of terrorism, and we fear its appearance in the internal form of intolerance and repression.

Now is the time to take instruction from a group of courageous writers and thinkers who were forced to confront the question of human evil on a scale we can only now begin even to imagine. These are the modernists who saw the vast horror of two world wars, who faced the engulfing evil of fascism, and nevertheless, against all evidence, affirmed the existence of a transcendent human nature and inherent meaningfulness. In the face of worldwide political evil, they taught of ultimate good.

For them the world fell suddenly into two camps: the civilized Allies led by the British Empire and the United States, and the fascist Axis powers, who seemed capable of every sort of inhumanity. Even before they knew the outcome, the conflict itself had sapped the faith of artists and authors across the world. For both the Germans and the Japanese had been symbols of the power of civilization to perfect the virtues of the human spirit. How could thoughtful, educated people-their souls enriched with religion, their minds civilized by music, philosophy, and art-be capable of such evil?

The answer for most post-war thinkers was that good was not inherent and wisdom was not natural. It was a kind of embittered relativism, seasoned strangely with bursts of national or ethnic patriotism: Art must be experimental, for the past can be no guide, having led to the bloodbaths of World Wars I and II. Philosophy can possess no wisdom, for the Germans were master philosophers before they embraced fascism. Religion could offer no shelter, for perfectly serious Christians had been concentration camp guards.

Thus mainstream thought for the post-war generation of thinkers and artists alternated between disillusionment and narrow patriotism. Human nature had turned en masse to political evil. The Allies may have beaten fascism, but after the "victory" traditional civilization was still in ruins. The answer for most was the multi-faceted world of experiments in expression that we call modernism.

Modernist Mystics

But some, having looked into the same abyss, nevertheless took another direction-a spiritual direction that upheld hope in human nature and history-and began to teach what Aldous Huxley called "the perennial philosophy." This is the uncynical belief taught by all Asian philosophy and some Western mystics that the divine is immanent. Whatever consciousness can touch is divine by nature, and through spiritual practice can be realized to be so.

Many of the Western intellectuals who believed this turned to Eastern thought late in their careers. They may have begun as spokesmen for modernism, but their ultimate solution to the metaphysical problems of the post-war generation was the idea that spirituality worked where science, talk and political commitment had not.

These were the intellectual children of the two world wars, who had struggled with the fall from grace of traditional Western civilization. European authors in particular experienced philosophical and historical nightmares hard to share with Americans, seemingly protected between two deep oceans. Only the American soldiers themselves had been face to face with the same vast evil, and it took them generations to express their horror.

The advanced European thinkers of the fifties saw the World Wars as a refutation of 19th-century European culture. The supposedly civilized great powers of western Europe had fallen upon each other in two unexampled feasts of bloodshed. Germany, which was supposed to be the "land of poets and philosophers," had willingly placed a mad criminal in power. The romantic nationalist and republican philosophies, and the classical philosophies supposedly inherited from ancient Greece and Rome, had prevented nothing, protected nothing. Both the hierarchical values of Catholicism and the democratic values of Protestantism had easily complied with fascism.

T.S. Eliot's famous poem, “The Wasteland,” made its general indictment of Western civilization. And Yeat's poem, "The Second Coming," became the text every schoolchild read to learn that the old values had fallen, that now was the time when:

"Things fall apart, the center does not hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world...”

In response, most modernists did not provide a new creed, a new system by which one could live or reconstruct civilization. They simply placed their art at the disposal of the universal postwar critique: that the old civilization had fallen and that one did not know how to make life meaningful without the religious and humanistic values of that vanished world. In this context the authors who could assert a transcendental truth showed a special breed of courage.

Viktor Frankl: Mysticism in a Concentration Camp

Viktor Frankl was one of the most important spokesmen for a non-materialist approach to moral life. His greatest work does not literally refer to Asia or meditation practice and yet, by his example, he laid a foundation for other modernist mystical thinkers. Frankl was a Jewish psychologist who survived the Nazi death camps and derived from the experience an approach to psychotherapy based on finding inherent meaning in life. He called his technique "logotherapy." His most influential work is Man's Search for Meaning, a book one can read quickly, living within the world he projects, or slowly, as a wisdom book.

In it he describes analytically, almost scientifically, his life as a prisoner in Auschwitz. That should have been a situation where nothing had meaning, for the intention of the guards was to turn humans into animals, to reduce the lives of internees to a fruitless struggle for individual survival, and then to kill them like rats.

As Frankl readily admits, it was impossible for any inmate to show ordinary humanity without dying immediately from a slight disadvantage in the struggle for survival. Only one in twenty-four survived the experience and this was known perfectly well by the prisoners. The only way to survive in the death camps was at the expense of others. If, for example, a certain transport was destined to take a specific number of prisoners to the gas chambers, the survivor must act accordingly: "With no hesitation, therefore, he would arrange for another prisoner, another ‘number,’ to take his place in the transport. … On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence. … We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles … we know; the best of us did not return."

These terms of existence stripped away whatever of culture and civilization was not rooted in the core of human experience. Frankl details with an attitude of scientific exactitude, and without ideology, moralizing or fancy theory, precisely what is left after this dissolving of boundaries has taken its course. His authority is unquestionable because in the narrative you see him, a cultured, sophisticated and sensitive psychotherapist, survive the specific horrors of a universe where being human is admitted no sacredness.

When Frankl described his personal, wordless discovery that there is something transcendent in the human condition, it was the first and most authoritative positive response to T.S. Eliot’s complaint that Western civilization had collapsed because its values were hollow. Frankl does not attempt to set up a new system of morality or to uphold the old one. In fact, he is not given to judgement at all. But he gives positive evidence for the underlying indestructible character of humanity. He argues that there is a basic nature to humanness, a nature that is other than the instinctual drives and mechanistic forces enshrined in every modernist theory.

Where Freud proposes an instinctual subconscious common to animals and humans, Frankl proposes another mentality that he calls "the spiritual unconscious." This mind is motivated not by the will to pleasure, as in Freud, or the will to power, as in Adlerian psychology, but by what Frankl calls "the will to meaning." Frustration that one's life seems to lack meaning is not, therefore, a psychological disorder or a sign of ill-health: "Existential frustration is in itself neither pathological nor pathogenic. A man's concern, even his despair, over the worthwhileness of life is an existential distress but by no means a mental disease. It may well be that interpreting the first in terms of the latter motivates a doctor to bury his patient's existential despair under a heap of tranquilizing drugs. It is his task, rather, to pilot the patient through his existential crises of growth and development."

Frankl’s writings after Man's Search for Meaning gradually reveal the debt he owes to Buddhism and Hinduism, a debt he has in common with other Existentialist thinkers from Heidegger and Karl Jaspers to the French phenomenologists. They speak, using Jaspers’ beautiful expression from Philosophy I, of the "inaccessible ground of human awareness." This is Frankl's "spiritual unconscious," so different from the Freudian one. He also calls it Der unbewusste Gott, “the unconscious god.”

This is a knowing which is within us, which seeks meaning, and which cannot be known analytically or as an object, but which underlies existence. He quotes the Vedas: "That which does the seeing, cannot be seen; that which does the hearing, cannot be heard; and that which does the thinking, cannot be thought." Buddhists might call it the dharmakaya or buddhanature, and their practices, like those of Jaspers and Frankl, seek to know it but do not analyze it materialistically or take it for a thing.

This search for "being which underlies being" Frankl tested in the unforgiving laboratory of the Nazi death camps. Tempered in such a fire, his philosophy rings with authenticity.

Czeslaw Milosz and Slavic Depression

Czeslaw Milosz, the winner of the 1980 Nobel Prize for literature, is another author who sought to find positive answers in face of the abyss. Milosz was actually a Polish-speaking Lithuanian who gained his poetic voice in the period between the two World Wars. His most important book is The Captive Mind, an analysis of the Polish intelligentsia under communism.

Poland at the end of the war knew not one moment of freedom. The blood-thirsty Nazi occupiers were instantly replaced by brutal Soviet invaders. Polish intellectuals were slowly transformed into Marxist propagandists, their minds captive and gradually enslaved. There was no hint that there would ever be a change.

And so the natural vision of a Polish intellectual who lived through the middle of the 20th century was one of unrelieved political evil: no saving grace from a liberating American army, no hope that sanity would reign in the political sphere, no grounds for dreaming that personal life could freely seek the truth, no room for any truth beyond strict materialism.

Like Frankl, Milosz is convincing because he does not resort to controversial idealistic generalizations. His vision of the mental enslavement of Eastern Europe is reported by a series of detailed case studies of Polish poets who collaborated with dialectical materialism in order to survive the Russian takeover. In writing this, Milosz alienated himself both from the community of thinkers still in Eastern Europe and from the eternal Polish emigré community in Paris. He became a man alone, bereft of an audience for his poetry because he could only write in Polish; bereft of a community because of his institutionally embarrassing honesty.

This makes his book, which could be no more than political reportage, a work of courage and transcendental wisdom, one of the quintessential writings of the 20th century. It is strange that such a negative piece could be so uplifting, but his attacks imply a faith in human nature he never specifies in so many words.

His case studies in complicity and capitulation are all poets he admires, with whom he feels a profound sympathy, and his treatment of them is sarcastic but sympathetic. There is a profound humanity of sadness in his treatment of the “problem of Eastern Europe” that lingers, as a matter of fact, through all of his work. This special tone, a kind of enlightened tristesse, is the sign of a person who senses the existence of wisdom and ultimate good but is too humble to assert it.

In his recently published letters to Thomas Merton, Milosz is characteristically proud, humble and sad at the same time: “In fact I love those people against whom I directed my anger much more than I show. I did not succeed in showing my love and my whole thought…”

Merton, a Trappist monk with Zen leanings, shows in his answer to Milosz the book’s positive virtues: “Whatever you may feel about The Captive is certainly a book that had to be written and evidently such a book could not be written unless it were written with terrible shortcomings. Good will come of the suffering involved for you and for others. … It is one of the very few books about the writer and Communism, or about Communism itself, that has any real value as far as I can see.”

Merton characterizes himself and Milosz as free thinkers who were “in the middle … caught between two millstones … intellectual(s) caught between tyrannies.” This ability of Milosz to speak from the middle, a place where there is no ideological ground but only honesty, showed a leaning to a spirituality that seeks the highest, a fact he makes literal only in his later writings.

Aldous Huxley and the Perennial Philosophy

Aldous Huxley was the quintessential postwar intellectual. His novels critiqued the fading English upper class, which had succeeded in defeating Hitler but had failed to provide leadership towards a new spiritual life after the war. Huxley became famous beyond literary circles when he wrote Brave New World, but his really important work is The Perennial Philosophy, which makes a clear case for the importance of meditation.

In it Huxley reports his discovery of mystical practice as a solution to the disillusionment of the postwar world. His famous novels had been pure disillusion leavened with only a tentative note of hope. Now he could report that there was a specific saving grace still within Western civilization, a philosophy born of the direct experience of God in contemplative practice. This was the true fount of philosophy and ethics, the ecstatic experience of the West's few, precious Neo-Platonic, Sufi, Christian and Kabalistic mystics.

According to Huxley all of these philosophies agree at the level of practice with Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Neo-Confucianism. The key idea is that the divine, the absolute, the ultimate is immanent in the world. Ordinary material things seem to be mere matter, but at their core they are God or buddhanature or whatever the particular tradition uses to call the ultimate.

The book is actually a stitching together of hundreds of quotes from Western and Eastern scriptures and patristic writings. If Huxley were 30 years old today he would not have written this book, because a mind so convinced of its point would have studied Tibetan or Sanskrit or Chinese and written technical spiritual manuals. But this was the point in history where one needed to prove that mysticism was the answer to the modern dilemma, and so it may be that nothing will ever quite replace Huxley's superb presentation.

Grey Eminence

Let us end this article strangely with a book by Aldous Huxley that deserves attention but is actually out of print: The Grey Eminence, a Study in Religion and Politics. This is a case study of a Catholic contemplative monk named Francois le Clerc du Tremblay, known as Father Joseph, who lived in the time of Louis XIII.

Father Joseph was one of the great Christian contemplatives of his century. His journals indicate that in his complex spiritual exercises, he actually experienced face-to-face the presence of God. But Joseph was also highly political and was closely allied with the Machiavellian leader of the French state, Cardinal Richelieu. Although a monk, he became the head of the French secret police.

Richelieu's foreign policy was to oppose the Austro-Hungarian Empire and see if he could destroy its power, so that France in the coming century could have European hegemony. Father Joseph, a French patriot, served him brilliantly in this scheme. In the act, although a monk, he became one of the causes of the continuation of the Thirty Years War, a complex religious war that pitted Catholicism against a variety of Protestants.

The Thirty Years War was so devastating that it reduced the German-speaking areas of Europe to cannibalism. In Huxley's view, the basis for a healthy German state was destroyed by this war and the seeds of the chaos of the 20th century were planted exactly at this moment. And one of the causes of the terrible, wasteful Thirty Years War was Europe's greatest contemplative. It is a problem with which we are becoming sadly familiar at this very moment: How can such smart people do such evil things? How can a man genuinely devoted to religion engage in such systematic harm?

But an interesting aftereffect of this war was something only Aldous Huxley could have reported on-the effect of this political policy on Father Joseph's meditation. In the last years of his life the monk reported that he could for some reason no longer experience the presence of God in his contemplative practice. Huxley analyzes Joseph's spiritual techniques and concludes that even a merely political involvement with violence makes it impossible to experience personal realization. Joseph never killed or tortured anybody himself, he never personally committed an assassination. But he ordered such things and he assiduously collected reports from his army of spies on these aggressive acts. The result was that he polluted his own contemplative practice and died embittered with his life despite the utter success of his politics.

Robin Kornman, PH.D., was a professor of comparative literature and a Tibetan Buddhist translator. He studied Slavic literature and Eastern European government, and was a Library of Congress fellow in international studies.
Of War and Hope, Robin Kornman, Shambhala Sun, January 2002.


The New World of Tibetan Buddhism Print

The New World of Tibetan Buddhism

Discussion led by

A roundtable discussion with Tim McNeill, Reginald Ray, Tenzin Palmo and Sangye Khandro.

Melvin McLeod, editor of the Shambhala Sun: Tibetan Buddhism is popular in the West today, but perhaps many people are not clear what defines Tibetan Buddhism. To begin with, what feature of Tibetan Buddhism do you think differentiates it from other types of Buddhism or other spiritual paths?

Sangye Khandro: I would say it is the profound blessings of the lineage of teachers, which one encounters through meeting one's own spiritual teacher. I became involved with Tibetan Buddhism because there were such profound, authentic teachers to connect with. And of course the teachings followed from that and were just as extraordinary. One discovers that the path of vajrayana leads to liberation in one lifetime—if one is able to maintain the connection with the spiritual teacher that started the whole process.

Reginald Ray: Tibetan Buddhism, like many other religions, has a comprehensive array of teachings, about practice, study, community and so on. But I think its unique feature is that it is a completely living tradition. It is absolutely vital and alive. That level of vitality and direct connection with the original spirit of the tradition is unusual among the world's religions.

Melvin McLeod: What is it that defines vitality or lack of vitality in a spiritual tradition?

Reginald Ray: Personal transformation and realization is at the heart of it. Because there is a living lineage that embodies the tradition in its entirety, it can communicate a very deep level of realization to new students, and provide a path for them so they can obtain the same realization.

Tim McNeill: Meeting my teachers, Lama Yeshe and Lama Zopa, was the most profound experience of my life and the event that brought me to the Buddhist path. Beyond that, what I find unique about Tibetan Buddhism is the body of writings that have been preserved. There is a body of literature—most of it not even accessible in Western languages yet—that is pretty extraordinary and a special feature of Tibetan Buddhism.

Tenzin Palmo: I would add that there is also the supermarket aspect of Tibetan Buddhism, because it contains the fullness of all the traditions. Everything is there in 57 different varieties. But I don’t know just how that will continue. The problem is that Tibetan Buddhism was so perfect for Tibetans, but whether or not the way it is packaged is perfect for Westerners—given the kind of society we have, with the kind of education and background we have—is hard to say.

Melvin McLeod: Yet Tibetan Buddhism does have considerable caché at this point. Would any of you like to speculate about the reason for the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism in the West?

Tim McNeill: As someone who has been involved with Tibetan matters for 30 years, both politically and in terms of the dharma, I would say it's important first to acknowledge that a lot of groundwork was laid by many dedicated people to get where we are now. Then in recent years, of course, there has been a more visible geopolitical aspect to it, with the prominence the Dalai Lama received after being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In our celebrity-oriented society, that kind of thing certainly has contributed to the growing popularity of Tibetan Buddhism.

There is also the very colorful image projected by Tibetan Buddhism in all its many forms. There is an allure, almost a video-like image of Tibetan Buddhism, that I think is conducive to celebrity—which is of course the superficial side of the whole thing. But as far as what draws those who genuinely connect with the tradition, I would come back to the teacher.

Tenzin Palmo: It is true that in the Tibetan tradition there are so many incredible lamas and teachers, probably more than in any other tradition at this point. People meet with such masters and say, “I don’t know what you believe in, but whatever it is, I want to get in on it.”

Then, of course, Tibetan Buddhism is so colorful. When I first came to the dharma in the late fifties and early sixties, Tibetan Buddhism was regarded as something very esoteric and far out, a pretty degenerate form of Buddhism. But at that time nobody knew very much. Then in the late sixties we hit the whole psychedelic era and many young people were taking acid and traveling on the hippie trail to India and Nepal. Suddenly they met with Tibetan Buddhism and it was love at first sight. All of their psychedelic visualizations made them feel completely at home. They began a love affair with Tibetan Buddhism. Gradually they would warm to its deeper aspects.

Tibetan Buddhism is like a flower. You take away petal after petal after petal. There are so many layers; it is so vast and so deep. You can never get to the end of it. In that way, it constantly challenges you.

Reginald Ray: We might ask why this colorfulness has such an impact in our culture.

Tenzin Palmo: Maybe it's because our culture is so gray.

Reginald Ray: That’s it, I think. In the beginning, students I work with are attracted to the vitality and color of the tradition. What I think they see is an invitation to deepen their experience of being alive. One of the aspects that keeps them engaged, as Tenzin Palmo just mentioned, is that the further they go, the more they find that Tibetan Buddhism has keys to unlock doors to deeper experiences of being a human being. Often people criticize the attraction we have to the exotic but I think there is some real spiritual meaning behind it. This tradition in particular can deliver. It opens doors into a new world and that engages people.

Sangye Khandro: Vajrayana is also referred to as secret mantra. People are always attracted to that which they don’t know about, or which may be concealed or hidden. In this case, they have yet to connect with intangible, unceasing wisdom qualities, which are a self-contained secret until they enter as students through empowerment and begin to practice under the guidance of a qualified teacher.

Melvin McLeod: We have agreed that the teacher-student relationship is the essence of this tradition. At the same time, doesn’t the hierarchical nature of that relationship pose difficulties for Westerners?

Reginald Ray: Often Westerners don’t see hierarchy as facilitating intimacy between a teacher and a student. Our culture has an ingrained and implicit anti-hierarchical bent, probably related to our Protestant climate. In his early years in the West, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche felt that the forms of hierarchy he had inherited were actually getting in the way of his relationship with his students on a dharmic level. Obviously hierarchy is very important, but at the same time it may have to undergo a shift. In fact, among Tibetan teachers, I see considerable variation in the way they approach hierarchy.

Sangye Khandro: Trungpa Rinpoche taught very skillfully about the idea of natural hierarchy in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. No matter how much you try to go against it, the world has order, power and richness that is there naturally on a spiritual level. It doesn’t matter what culture teachers come from, Tibetan or Western. If they are qualified spiritual teachers with wisdom, they have great merit, which places them in a natural hierarchy: they are in a position to benefit others immensely.

Tim McNeill: My teacher used to be very clear that tantra—far from being a system of dogma accepted on faith or authority—is a step-by-step exploration of the human condition leading to self-discovery. The fact it is empirical is what appealed to me most about it. As you gain insight, that validates what has been taught and experienced by others. Lama Yeshe went out of his way to be aware of our backgrounds and concerns, and to deal with Westerners as Westerners. He took a lot of grief in the early years from some Tibetans because he had such enduring and intimate contacts with Westerners and taught them in a different way.

Melvin McLeod: Given the wide range of books and programs currently available, what is your assessment of the quality of presentation of Tibetan Buddhism in the West today?

Reginald Ray: We have to make a distinction between Western teachers like ourselves and Tibetan teachers. One of the things that always amazes me about the Tibetan lamas is that they can teach in an introductory way to people who know nothing about Buddhism with the same skill that they teach at a much higher level. What I notice in myself and in other Western teachers is that we haven’t quite figured out how to do that. I think sometimes the tradition gets distorted in our presentations, particularly at the beginning levels. It’s something we definitely have to work on.

Tim McNeill: We are seeing a much higher level of quality in the translation of original texts and commentary, and that is very heartening. Many Westerners are now well-trained in Tibetan and Sanskrit, and the quality of this scholarship is quite important. It's also heartening that within academia there are so many people who are out in the open as both Buddhist practitioners and scholars.

Sangye Kandro: We would benefit if we had more of the classic translations available. In the bookstores I see many general books about Buddhism, books that are more for pleasure reading. We need to make more of the classic Buddhist material available to Western readers.

Melvin McLeod: Does Tibetan Buddhism lend itself to amalgamation with other traditions and disciplines, such as Western psychology or science, or should it be treated as a complete system whose integrity must be respected?

Tenzin Palmo: The Tibetans incorporated the dharma into the whole of their culture—with medicine, with architecture, with poetics, with whatever was of interest to them. You can apply good basic dharma principles to everything, as the motivation behind all of these activities.

Sangye Khandro: It seems important that we bring the skill of the dharma to these worldly issues, rather than trying to bring them to the dharma.

Tim McNeill: At a Mind Science Conference at MIT in 1991, the Dalai Lama said that while it was very nice to have inter-religious dialogues, he felt the most fertile ground for dialogue with the West was through the psychological sciences or neurosciences. That is why he has held so many conferences with Western scientists.

Reginald Ray: If we use the term "dialogue," then I think there is a tremendous amount that can happen. But the “amalgamation” question is interesting because it is true that later in Tibetan history, after Buddhism had been transplanted, forms began to emerge that represented a coming together of indigenous traditions and the tradition of Buddhism they had inherited.

In the West that process is probably going to take a long time. This may be a very conservative view, but I believe the job of our generation, and perhaps a few generations to come, is to take the Tibetan forms we've been given and practice them and see where they lead. Then we can look back from there and see how those forms led us to a particular state of realization. At that point the question can arise of what other forms in the culture can be integrated into the tradition. Today, you sometimes see people melding things together and creating hybrid forms, and I just think it is too early to do that. Our gift back to the tradition may be that we are willing to practice the forms we’ve been given for a few generations without fiddling around too much.

Melvin McLeod: What then needs to happen now to ensure a successful, genuine transmission of Tibetan Buddhism, and particularly the vajrayana, to the West?

Tenzin Palmo: I think what we need are people who have eaten the tradition and digested it, and for whom it is nurturing their whole being. We need great, realized people who have really actuated the tradition. That is what we are lacking. We have very good scholars, but where are the Milarepas?

Marpa went to India and took the teachings from Naropa. He didn’t invite Naropa back to Tibet; he himself went back to Tibet. He didn't hold onto the lama; he actuated the teachings. He translated them, gave them to Milarepa, and did it all in Tibetan. He realized the teachings and passed them on. This is what we need: genuinely realized beings, not semi-cooked but completely cooked. Most of us are kind of half-baked. [Laughter]

Reginald Ray: This is a critical point and something that is not talked about enough. Dzongzar Khyentse Rinpoche said recently that he finds in teaching Westerners that they don’t believe that Western people could drink from the depths of the tradition and realize anything. As a culture, we have a poor self-image embodied, for example, in the teaching of original sin. We have to realize that until there are Western people who achieve some kind of real and authentic realization—and it may not happen in this generation—the translation and the transplantation of Buddhism to this culture will not have occurred.

Tim McNeill: It seems to be all of a piece. The developing scholarship must be wedded with practitioners and monastic environments, environments that support and nurture practice. Some of that is happening; there are more places now for people to meditate in the West and to be supported by a community.

Reginald Ray: The strength of Tibetan Buddhism is in the different voices—the scholarly voice, the lay voice, the retreatant’s voice. Some of us in the West tend to focus on practice as the only thing. For the tradition to survive long-term, the integrity of the diverse voices that have always been alive in Tibet must be maintained in the West.

Sangye Kandro: Traditionally, the success of the doctrine is said to depend on two aspects: scriptural understanding and realization. We Westerners are now responsible for making sure that those two aspects are present in the West and can be sustained.

Melvin McLeod: We have described Tibetan Buddhism as a vital tradition capable of transmitting profound realization to people of the present day. How confident do you feel that in the future this strong and vital transmission will remain alive in the West?

Tenzin Palmo: From the Tibetan side, I think it depends partly on whether new incarnations of all the great lamas trained in Tibet will arise, and then how these new incarnate lamas will be trained. How are the yogis and scholars going to get the kind of training received in the past so they can become genuine holders of the lineage?

And from the side of the Westerners, will they have totally immersed themselves in the practice, so that their whole lives become practice, so that they become worthy vessels to be filled with the nectar of the dharma? If we are all filled with dirty water, how can nectar be poured into such impure vessels? From our side, we have to clean out, but we have to ask ourselves whether that is happening at this time.

Reginald Ray: We haven’t talked very much about our cultural context. Part of the ability of Tibetan Buddhism to continue to mature in the West depends upon solving certain problems that our culture presents. One of the main ones is the problem of community. How can we create sustainable forms of community that are real communities, not just organizations? We need places where people know each other over a period of many years, where there is intimacy, where you can encounter both the negative and positive sides of one another in a way that eventually leads to the deepening and encouragement of one’s practice.

Sangye Khandro: I think we need to work harder to establish more institutes of Buddhist learning with courses in traditional study, and more retreat centers. We need not only dharma centers but also places where people study courses for years at a time, and places where people enter into long-term retreat.

The distinction of East and West is sometimes overemphasized. It is only based on the concept of time and direction, which has no true existence. I have one hundred percent confidence that the authentic Buddhist tradition will be sustained in the West. One day it may even happen that Buddhism in the West will be the source through which the pure traditions are brought back to the East. We have quite a responsibility that we need to acknowledge.

Tim McNeill is president of Wisdom Publications in Boston. He serves on the board of the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition.

Reginald Ray, Ph.D., is professor of Buddhist studies at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. His new book is Secret of the Vajra World: The Tantric Buddhism of Tibet.

Tenzin Palmo was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1964, and spent 12 years in solitary retreat in the Himalayas. She is subject of the book Cave in the Snows.

Sangye Khandro is a well-known traslator of both oral and scriptural Tibetan. She is a member of the Light of Berotsana Translation Group.

The New World of Tibetan Buddhism, Melvin McLeod, Shambhala Sun, January 2002.


Aim High But Don't Be So Hard on Yourself Print

Aim High But Don't Be So Hard on Yourself

Tibetan Lama Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche's advice to Western practitioners. By EMILY BOWER.

Emily Bower: Rinpoche, what advice would you give a new student of Buddhism who is seeking a center or a teacher? How would you counsel such a student to find a genuine teacher?

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: First, I would say that critical attitude and devotion are not opposed. It's very important to question a teacher; it's very important to question the teachings one is receiving as well. The Buddha himself counseled his disciples to examine the teachings as they would examine the authenticity of a gold nugget. We cannot simply follow someone or follow certain teachings blindly. We need a balance between critical thinking and faith: not being overly critical, so that we become nihilistic and don't believe in anything, nor being completely naive and credulous, believing in every doctrine or philosophy we have heard.

Devotion is not a state you're in. It's a process you go through. Faith and devotion have to deepen through understanding. If you do not understand, you cannot have really deep and profound faith. There has to be a dialectical relationship between faith and questioning.

Emily Bower: Is this a paradox, then?

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: Not really. In ordinary life we follow the same pattern. If you get romantically involved with someone, it would be stupid to take up with them based solely on your initial impulse. Your feeling for the person has to grow from knowing more about them, from understanding them. Our effort to deepen our understanding of spirituality and our relationship to a teacher should not be different. There has to be understanding, as well as trust, conviction, faith and devotion.

Emily Bower: Given how much commitment is involved, one wonders how many people in the West are really going to be able to follow the full vajrayana path.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: Different people are going to benefit from the teachings in different ways. Some will become part of monastic institutions. Some will be more academically inclined. Others will benefit from doing more meditation. Even in Tibet, there weren't that many who tried to actualize fully what they learned and completely transform themselves.

In the West, just as in Tibet and elsewhere, there may be very few individuals who fully realize the spiritual truth. The world is not populated by realized beings. Otherwise, we'd be living in a much better world. Arhats, siddhas, tathagatas, bodhisattvas—those kind of realized beings are going to be very few and far between, and that's just the way it is. To overcome deluded states of mind is not easy.

That does not mean, though, that we cannot improve the world, as some people believe Buddhists claim. We can do an enormous amount to improve the world. We can improve the world not simply in terms of ecology, political conditions, social environment, health care, education and so forth, but we can also raise the level of spiritual understanding.

Emily Bower: If one's state of mind can be improved and clarified, how is that related to taking better care of our planet?

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: From a Buddhist perspective, you have to see everything in terms of relationships. Instead of thinking of sentient beings as distinct entities existing independently from each other and from the material world, we have to see everything as existing in terms of relationships.

That is the true spiritual understanding we have to gain. If we have that, there's going to be less conflict between races, religions and cultures. Also, our understanding of the natural world will be improved. Our view will not be so exploitive and greedy in exhausting the earth's natural resources, consuming everything now and not leaving anything for future generations.

That is the Buddhist understanding of interdependence, the key to transforming the world. But because we do not think that way, because we think we're different and separate, we create many problems. Buddhists do not talk about the oneness of everything. We appreciate diversity, while maintaining the understanding that everything that exists is interdependent. In that way we can assert the plurality of cultures, the diversity of human experiences. At the same time, we do not allow ourselves to fixate on the diversity but rather understand the interdependent nature of all phenomena.

Emily Bower: What is your opinion of how Buddhism is being introduced in the West? How well are the teachings being presented and how well are Westerners handling those teachings?

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: In general, it's going extremely well. But in any great transition, such as Buddhism being transplanted in the West, there is a process of maturing. Naturally there are going to be difficulties, and I do believe there are some problems associated with how Buddhism is currently introduced, practiced, taught and assimilated.

The main problem lies in being overzealous about wanting to Americanize Buddhism, somehow thinking that the traditional forms of Buddhism as introduced to America are not adequate. The transplantation taking place in America is the same as that which has taken place naturally in many other places. I don't think we have to go out of our way to achieve that end, since we can see that it already happened in Tibet, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and other places. Modern people are not as patient, but in rushing to Americanize something, things can and do go wrong.

Reading books by some American Buddhist teachers, I sense a lack of appreciation for the heritage, the roots from which the teachings flow. Tibetan Buddhism is very different from Buddhism as it existed in India. However, Tibetan practitioners look to India as a source of inspiration for our practices, and I think a similar attitude should be maintained by Western Buddhist practitioners. It does not pay for them to dissociate themselves from their respective traditional roots—Tibetan Buddhism, Theravada, Zen or whatever form they have incorporated into their lives. One should not forget the roots.

Though one doesn't need to be fundamentalist and take everything literally. In fact, Buddhism has a rich tradition of interpretation. However, one should not take it too far and turn Buddhism—or Christianity or any religion for that matter—into something totally different from what was presented by the respective founders.

Emily Bower: Could you say more about what you see as some of the wayward directions that some American Buddhists are taking?

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: A sense of devotion seems to be lacking at times. People often think devotion is some form of submitting oneself to authority, whereby one's own freedom and independence is taken away. That is not devotion. True devotion comes from a reciprocal relationship between the teacher and student, which is beneficial for both. Whatever Western Buddhist teachers transmit should be a rich offering for their own students, and those students should show gratitude to their teachers, and the teachers themselves should show gratitude to their own teachers in turn.

It seems that people often just take whatever teachings they can get from the teacher and then they become teachers themselves, while their own teacher is ignored, discarded. It is like the traditional analogy of hunting deer simply for their musk. Once you have extracted the musk, you discard the carcass. You've got what you want, so you show no respect whatsoever to the animal that has provided you with a precious gift with healing powers.

Many problems arise from not showing enough gratitude to the teachers. In Buddhism, lineage is so important. What one transmits is precious only because we have received it from legitimate sources and predecessors. We cannot think about ourselves as special beings. Whatever we are able to teach is only due to others who have preceded us.

Emily Bower: Tibet seems to have been a very auspicious place for dharma to flourish, perhaps because of the support provided by the culture, the economy and the geography. Are conditions in the West conducive to the development of the buddhadharma?

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: Yes, very much so. Material conditions work both ways. Tibet was a poor country. Many people had to do backbreaking work every day simply to survive. They didn't have the luxury to follow the spiritual path unless they became a monk or a nun. It was very difficult for ordinary people to be able to practice the dharma. In that respect, the better economic conditions and material prosperity people enjoy in the West is an asset. The downside of course is that people might get too fixated on material comfort and not take interest in the dharma.

Overall, though, if the dharma could take root in Tibet, it could also take root here, where the material conditions are better. Books, Buddhist education and training, and the opportunity to do retreats are readily available for so many people in the West. In Tibet, just to be able to procure a copy of a text was very difficult. There was no electricity, so they had to study at night by oil lamp. People who live in the modern world do not have to go through that kind of hardship, so it's easier to practice.

Emily Bower: The problem for Westerners seems to be carving the time out of our schedule to do the practicing and studying required.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: It's not necessarily how much time you spend that determines one's spiritual progress; it's the intention and attitude you have toward practice. Even if it's just for five minutes every day, it's so much better than doing hours of practice with a distorted view, a wrong attitude and unrealistic expectations.

Westerners are brought up to think critically. People are prone to having a critical attitude towards institutions, systems, and towards religious faith. People also apply that critical attitude to themselves. As a dharma practitioner, you may have sound intentions, but constantly think that you are not good enough, that you are not doing enough practice, that your spiritual experiences are too limited. Instead, you could simply try to practice with the available time you have and not keep going over this again and again in your mind. That's why a lot of people lose interest in practice after a while and develop resistance.

Emily Bower: Tibetan Buddhism in particular presents itself as a complete path. But sometimes we find that people will choose the parts that appeal to them and leave other parts out.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: Yes, that can be a problem. When we embark on the spiritual path, often we have to hear what we don't want to hear. Otherwise how are we going to be able to break down our entrenched habitual patterns? We have to see things in new ways. We have to hear things in new ways. We have to smell things in new ways. Buddhist practice is not just about transforming the internal, conceptual activities of the mind, nor is it simply about transforming the emotions. We also have to use our sensory apparatuses differently. We have to conceptualize things differently, we have to experience our feelings differently, and we have to use our senses differently. That's how we're going to transform ourselves.

Resistance will come up, but if we only want to see what we want to see, and hear what we want to hear, and think about things that we want to think about, and feel things that we want to feel, then there will be no self-transformation. We're just reinforcing the same old ways of thinking, the same old attitudes, beliefs, emotions and so forth.

Emily Bower: Can you say more about learning to use our senses differently?

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: That can be done in many different ways. It depends on the practices that you do. In terms of basic meditation practices, you try to see things in terms of impermanence. You try to hear things in terms of impermanence. In other words, everything you see is in movement. Nothing is static.

Normally due to our delusions, we reify things. We materialize them. It's as if we were taking a photo. We freeze the frame and we don't see the movement. Just as with seeing, when we hear, we have to hear in terms of movement. The same applies to all of the senses.

With tantric practice, you see everything in relation to the manifestation of the deities. Therefore, everything that you see, hear, smell, taste and touch is sacred, because the world is seen not just as an ordinary world but as a wonderland. You seek the world as a display of the mind. The world is not just out there; it's creative energy or soul.

Emily Bower: …and understanding our emotions differently?

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: We don't see the emotions as being good or bad. They're creative energies of the mind. Their sources lie in the natural state of one's being, in the nature of the mind itself.

Emily Bower:What if someone is depressed? Is that not an obstacle to meditation?

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: If one is depressed, one should just stay with it, instead of thinking, "How can I become enlightened when I'm so depressed and down, feeling alone and wretched? Enlightenment is not possible for me." One should not think in that way. The key is awareness. If one is aware of depression, one is in meditation. If one is not aware of one's depression, one is not in meditation.

So if one becomes aware of one's own depression or any other kind of emotional state, one should think, "I'm in meditation." They should not think, "Oh, now I've become distracted again." That is the judgmental mind, the mind that says, "This is a good meditative state; this is a bad meditative state. I should have more of this type of experience and I should have less of that kind of experience." That's constricting and constraining, and will drag you down. That's the basic samsaric attitude and it's not beneficial in meditation. As is said in mahamudra, everything you experience becomes self-liberating. You don't have to try to jettison experiences. If you become aware of them, they'll dissipate by themselves. Self-liberation is the key: not using any kind of effort to get rid of them.

Emily Bower: That sounds like magic.

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: It's not magic. You still have to do the practice! You just don't have to be so hard on yourself. You'll profit more from practice if you're less hard on yourself, if you don’t get caught up in your judgementalism.

Emily Bower: What advice you would give to practitioners in the West for how to build a lasting foundation for the dharma?

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche: Don't have great expectations for one's practice. Then one will always be pleasantly surprised by the development that takes place. But if one expects too much, wanting to become enlightened overnight, then one will not notice the progress.

This refers not only to meditation practice but to Buddhist practice of any kind, which includes practicing love, compassion, and engaging the world with a positive outlook. In all of our practice, we should aim high. We want to become a Buddha, a fully enlightened being, and that's no easy task. Buddhism more than any other religion emphasizes the path, and once we have embarked on the path, we're always progressing. While we aim high, we should see that enlightenment is also a process. Enlightenment is not merely a state that you arrive at. The journey and the destination are not separate.

Born in eastern Tibet in 1955, the Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche was recognized as an incarnate Buddhist teacher (tulku) by His Holiness the 16th Gyalwang Karmapa and enthroned as the abbot of Thrangu Monastery. After escaping to India in 1959, he continued a course of rigorous training, including five years at the Sanskrit University in Varanasi and several years at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim. He is now president and director of Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute, Melbourne, Australia, where he was sent in 1980 as the representative of the Kagyü lineage. He is the author of The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice.

Aim High But Don't Be So Hard on Yourself, Emily Bower, Shambhala Sun, January 2002.

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